Keeping the People Report
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E-Letter Volume 16 Spring Issue, 2009
The Essence of Good Business

Value, Quality, Service, Honesty, Integrity, Caring, Accountability, Results, Responsiveness--those are some of the words that appear most frequently in the company mission statements I've seen over the years. But, to me the one word that encompasses all these professed values and that captures the essence of good business is Trust.

Most businesses try and generally succeed in winning and maintaining our trust. But sadly, trust is missing at all too many, as the daily news reminds us. Bad business is all around us--from the greed and selfishness that produced the financial tsunami of 2008, to the internet scams and spams, to shoddy workmanship, to the indifferent customer service that we are all too accustomed to encountering at restaurants or retail stores, and in our "customer care" interactions with those in remote locations.

Trust implies several covenants with the customer--that services or products will be delivered as promised, that honesty will prevail instead of deceit or manipulation, that my time will not be wasted, and that company representatives will take responsibility for mistakes and failures to deliver. As Warren Buffet so succinctly stated, "Trust takes a lifetime to earn, but can be lost in seconds."

  • I trust that when a painter says he will be at my house at 2 pm in the afternoon, he will be there instead of calling two hours later to say that "something came up." I am amazed how few home service workers these days honor their promises to show up on time and respond to phone calls in a timely way.
  • When I go to the post office, I still optimistically expect to be waited on in a timely fashion. On most days I notice that there are only two workers on duty even though there are five work stations. With eight to twelve people waiting patiently in line, it seems reasonable to expect that the two workers would move with a sense of urgency as they walk from the counter to the back room and return. Instead, they stroll at a glacial pace, sending the message loud and clear--"We don't care about your time."
  • When I go to the doctor and have my blood pressure taken, the nurse almost never tells me what the reading is. I have to ask. Does she think I'm not interested, that it's none of my business since I'm only the patient?

There are many sins in the business world--selfishness, greed, deceit, indifference, laziness, irresponsibility, and manipulation, to name a few. The one I find most personally aggravating, as you can probably tell, is indifference. That's because, as a customer, it is the sin I experience most often and most directly. At a very basic level, I trust and expect a business and its workers to care about giving good service and value. Interestingly, the American Society for Quality reports that 66 percent of all lost business can be traced back to a customer interaction with an indifferent employee.

It seems to me that good business is all about the employee-customer interaction. That's where everything starts, where the rubber meets the road. And that's where the best companies--Southwest Airlines, Nordstrom, Four Seasons Hotels, Wegman's Food Markets, and many others keep the focus. Yet the focus for leaders at many large public companies seems to be on stockholders, whom they regard as the primary stakeholders in the business. This translates into an almost single-minded focus on stock price and quarterly earnings reports, which, in turn, encourages managers to relentlessly push and pressure employees (instead of truly engage and motivate them) to meet short-term objectives, often with too few staff.

So, what we have in many companies is a hierarchy, with stockholders at the top, being served by executives, being served by managers, being served by employees who serve the customers. This is upside down. The much more effective hierarchy has proven to be one with customer-facing employees at the top, being served by managers, being served by executives, with stockholders as the beneficiaries. For a fuller explanation of how this works to achieve business success, read Hal Rosenbluth's classic, The Customer Comes Second--the story of how he built the most successful business travel company in the world based on this model. A growing minority of today's employers have embraced the same mindset.

Most employers have, over the years, acclimated themselves to the status quo of having a largely unengaged workforce. Year after year, the Gallup Organization's employee engagement surveys indicate that only about 25 percent of America's workers are engaged, meaning they are willing to give their full (and often exceptional) discretionary effort on the job. Another 60 percent or so can be classified as "not engaged", meaning that on most days they are giving just enough effort, but not exceeding expectations or delighting customers. The remaining 15 percent or so are the "actively disengaged"--your chronic underperformers, toxic underminers, and professional victims--angry, resentful, larcenous, error-and/or-accident-prone, capable of sabotage, and destroying the morale of co-workers and relationships with customers. The estimated cost of the combined 75 percent of disengaged and unengaged workers to the U.S. economy is $400 to $500 billion per year.

So the question I keep asking is why this clearly unacceptable situation has persisted over the years. I understand that the perfectibility of human nature is futile and that the disengaged will "always be with us," as will the poor. Many workers are lazy, are chronic whiners, feel excessively entitled to rewards without effort, have grossly unrealistic expectations, and are immune to motivational efforts. What intrigues me are the "employers-of-choice" I have studied since 1995 and the winning employers in the Best-Places-to-Work competitions (2003-present) whose cultures and practices I have had the privilege of analyzing for a book I co-authored with Mark Hirschfeld. There are six we feature in the upcoming book--SAS Institute in North Carolina, Winchester Hospital in Massachusetts, Rackspace Hosting in San Antonio, Nalley Automotive in Georgia, JDV Hospitality in San Francisco, and The Gaylord Palms Resort and Hotel in Orlando. Instead of having only about a quarter of their workers engaged, these "destination employers" typically are able to fully engage 60 percent or more of their employees and keep the number of actively disengaged to a minimum. So we were extremely interested in knowing what these special workplaces (and others like them) are doing to achieve employee engagement survey scores in the upper one percentile. We also carefully read their verbatim survey comments and found the following comment appearing again and again: "I feel so lucky to work here" (or words to that effect). The implication is clear--when employees feel they are the fortunate recipients of a superior work experience, they are more likely to give back in the form of greater effort and responsiveness to customers.

Our major finding was that there are six areas where the winning workplaces consistently outperform the non-winners:

  1. Their senior leaders invest in employees as assets to be served and developed, communicate more openly, and are more visible.
  2. Their direct managers are selected and trained to be good people managers, and are held accountable for engaging employees, and for keeping employees objectives aligned with those of the organization.
  3. They create the conditions for great teamwork by eliminating "we-they" barriers and encouraging open sharing of information, constructive conflict, and collaboration.
  4. They keep employees challenged and in jobs that fit their talents and provide multiple opportunities for learning, growth, and development.
  5. They go out of their way to recognize employee contributions and demonstrate how much they value all employees in several ways--by listening and acting on employees' ideas, keeping them informed, and providing the right tools and resources.
  6. They provide benefits and working conditions that demonstrate genuine caring for employees' well being.

These are the drivers of employee engagement, the levers we have out our disposal to influence the willingness of employees to give back more of their limited energy and effort. The reaction I sometimes get when I present these engagement drivers to groups of managers and executives is "so what else is new?", or "that's just common sense." My usual response is to point out just how uncommon common sense really is when it comes to common practice. It is human nature to want the easy button, the diet pill, the magic bullet. But the unpalatable truth is that leading and managing for optimum employee engagement is hard work requiring real commitment to do the kinds of things that other employers are not willing to do.

The mystery to me is that despite knowing these common sense practices work, many leaders actually choose the self-defeating path by not using them. Leaders are only human too, after all. Until more leaders begin to transcend their narrow self-interest, let go of the need to over-control, and begin to see employees as their only true source of competitive advantage, they will have little hope of engaging those who trust in their leadership and serve their customers.


The Seven Hidden Reasons Employees Leave: How to Recognize the Subtle Signs and Act Before It's Too Late, by Leigh Branham (AMACOM Books, 2005).

Keeping the People Who Keep You in Business: 24 Ways to Hang On to Your Most Valuable Talent, by Leigh Branham
(AMACOM Books, 2000).

To order either of these books click here.

Keeping the People, Inc. helps organizations link employer-of-choice strategies with business strategies, conduct third-party post-exit interviews and surveys, conduct engagement surveys with current employees, and provides the management coaching and training needed to implement those strategies.

For more information, contact Leigh Branham directly at (913) 620-4645, or by e-mail at Also visit the Web site:

Copyright, Keeping The People, Inc, 2008

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Copyright, Keeping the People, Inc. 2005. Keeping the People Report is written and edited by Leigh Branham.